July, It’s around that time of year where I subject a great deal of things to review, investments, taxation, personal values, people, life progress and the like. Though it is an atypical matter to review, I will impart the emerging social phenomena and themes setting the backdrop to modern life, which I’ve identified over the past year’s sporadic analysis of the state of the world.
Lending to the immense amount of coverage, the analysis will be in two parts, with this first instalment delving into the imperative of uniqueness/status, environmental activism, developmental acceleration and magical thinking/unrealistic expectations.
What we are beginning to see is the rise of a phenomenon you could call the ‘uniqueness imperative.’ Put simply, it concerns the consumer’s need to distinguish itself from the herd on as many bases of differentiation as possible. A prime example is mobile/cellular telephones, of which there are hundreds of different models available. When the massively popular Motorola RAZR series was first released, they quickly became the latest ‘must-have’ item as the unit was revolutionary in many respects, in terms of form, style and functionality. Critical saturation was eventually reached, and people no longer wanted the phone simply because everyone else had one; it was no longer ‘fashionable’ to be seen with a RAZR because they had become commonplace and mass market.
Identical logic underpins purchase decisions for all manner of consumer goods. There was once a time when German automobiles were a mark of elite prestige, possessed by very few, and very much unique to the upper social classes. However, with the advent of the asset price bubble over the last 4 years, growth in property values has created a class of accidental paper millionaires who are now in a financial position to purchase German and other exotic automobiles at the drop of a hat. The impetus behind the purchase is often to attain uniqueness and higher status among the individual’s group – the vehicle one drives is a status symbol. As a combined impact of wealth (facilitation) and status (impetus), there are enormous amounts of the BMW and Mercedes-Benz marques on Australia’s roads.
Hidden behind another layer is the issue of maintaining this uniqueness, which single-handedly explains the ever shortening replacement cycle and incidence of wastage. Looking at it logically, you buy a brand new BMW, and for a few months, it turns heads, satiating your desire for uniqueness. A short while later, so many people have purchased the new model with a similar intent, and the sight of the car is an everyday occurrence. The uniqueness value has now dissipated, so the consumer must make do or upgrade to a more expensive/newer model to maintain the relative edge of individuality and status.
The disturbing concern with this is that billions upon billions of dollars are wasted on non-functional investment to improve aspects of products that count for precisely squat in the greater scheme of things. It cost General Motors/Holden in excess of $1 Billion to develop the new VE Commodore – and a fair proportion of that billion was just design.
Because companies recognise the consumer’s lust after the latest and greatest in a never-ending race to be unique and stay ahead of the pack, ludicrous amounts of spending are devoted to cosmetic enhancement. For all intents and purposes, a dress made 20 years ago fulfils the same functional purpose as a dress made today – except that it’s not ‘fashionable’ any more, so it simply isn’t good enough.
One can view the world as a hyperactive child, incapable of sitting still. Society benefits through constant advancements in areas such as Medicine and Agricultural Science, but suffers as inordinate resources are drawn to development in areas where no real benefits accrue, for example, fashion.
This is but one of the many failures of resource allocation which prevents capitalism working as it should, the millions of dollars spent on such things as car design and cosmetics could be going toward alleviating poverty – but for human stupidity. It is in many ways tragic that one of the theoretical assumptions underlying capitalism is ‘rational’ behaviour when clearly human beings are anything but.
Green is the new black. In the space of the last twelve months, environmentalism has morphed from being viewed as an extension of hippy fundamentalism into a powerful global trend. Environmental Sustainability Governance (ESG) and trying to reduce our footprint on the environment have become all the rage lately, although it seems a case of more talk, less action.
For all its nobility, the cause is actually driven more by the motives of profit and guilt than it is by a genuine concern for the environment. To demonstrate, it began as a small change in the profile of demand: the desire of a small subset of consumers to be ‘environmentally friendly,’ among this subset were influential figures and celebrities which gave the mindset significant pulling power. Desire quickly evolved and developed into a Class 1 social trend (the most powerful type, that will typically define an era, such as sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll in the 1960s.)
The problem with Class 1 social trends is that they are unstable because only the core or early adopters push the trend with undulating energy. Most everyone else who joins in at phase two is simply jumping on the bandwagon because the concept is either in vogue, or has become a generally accepted social expectation. So the mass following is not constituent of hard-core environmentalists who denounce cars and logging; rather, self-styled armchair captain planets who subscribe to the theory but whose action goes about as far as pressing the half-flush button on their cisterns.
Fundamentally, the issue is motivation for pursuit of a trend. Some follow because they have a strong belief in the underlying cause, but most follow “just ‘cos everyone else is doing it.” If you want to make an ideology endure and have permanency in the global mindset, you need to drive it on one of two primal instincts: fear or greed. Capitalism purveys that more is better and that it is up to the individual to pursue his/her own economic prosperity – a relationship based on pure greed. Security commands over a trillion dollars of spending annually; on armaments, armies, military technology and intelligence – this persists because of the sovereign fear of states and their citizenry.
It becomes patently obvious that unless we see the environmental push being broadly driven by a real fear and sense of urgency to avert the self-inflicted destruction of this planet, then there will eventually be a reversion to the previous incumbent mindset, i.e. do your own thing, not caring about the broader consequences.
However, as previously alluded to, there is an element of greed promoting the environmentalism trend that exists as the profit motive. Demand has been created for anything ‘green’ or ‘sustainable,’ and this demand is willing to bid a premium for any such commodity. As long as there is the ability to increase profit by developing and marketing such ‘green’ products and services, then R&D will flow into making green eggs and ham. Of course, once the green widget usurps the incumbent widget for sales, competitive pressure forces the other widget manufacturers to compete by making their widgets green too, or risk going out of business. In this way, extinction of the old widget occurs, much like records have at the hands of the cassette, which was subsequently replaced in the same way by the compact disc.
The present trend toward environmentalism will hold and continue to gather pace so long as the balance of consumer spending power holds to putting their money where their mouths are, and willingly fork out more of their green for green. It is fairly safe to conclude that this will indeed be the case as we have passed the point of indoctrination/acceptance for environmentalism. In short, even if Al Gore said tomorrow that Earth was not at risk from humanity’s current activities, it wouldn’t make people question their motivation for being environmentally conscious and hence would not put the trend at risk of inversion.
Contrasted with reality fifty years ago, the process of growing up has been pulled backward and protracted to an alarming extent. With each subsequent decade that rolls on, children are ‘growing up’ at increasingly earlier ages. As a society, we have reached a point where 14 year olds binge drink, smoke, experiment with drugs, engage in sexual intercourse, participate in gang violence and all manner of other adult activities/vices which would have been taboo even twenty years ago.
The trend is developmental acceleration, where a combination of factors have resulted in certain areas of development being brought forward, specifically independence, identity formation and association. Previously, childhood stretched well into the teenage years and the ‘coming of age’ where one made the transition to adulthood was expected around 18. Substantively, a certain longevity of the childhood and formative stage is necessary to build the solid foundation for personality and relative emotional/mental stability. This is due to a number of reasons, the most prominent being diffusion of life wisdom. While we are young and impressionable, we look to older figures for support and guidance. For example, anyone who’s ever taken something as a child would likely have been forced to return it and subsequently been lectured by a parent about the moral that it’s wrong to take what isn’t yours. Such basic tenets are learned heuristically during childhood because a developing mind can be moulded and morals instilled with little resistance. There is also benefit in that the adult traits of pride and resistance to change have yet to fully take hold.
However, in modern times, the carefree ignorance of youth that allowed for personality and character to be gradually built through curiosity, mistakes, transferred wisdom and heuristic learning is evaporating. This is happening due to civil libertarianism, inability to control exposure to adverse stimuli, and increasing leniency. Children now know better than their parents and teachers, and take their learning cues instead from other, less virtuous sources – television, advertising, and media which is less than wholesome.
As an interesting adjunct, one of the practices that exacerbates the negative effect of developmental acceleration is parents’ shielding their children from failure, and hence, reality. Believe it or not, failure is actually more important than success in the greater scheme of things. Success is not a teacher and lessons are learned from mistakes. Shielding a person from failure merely delays the inevitable and has the snowballing effect of making the damage suffered considerably worse when failure does occurs.
For all but the few who can learn indirectly via intuitive reasoning or circumlocution, failure is a critical part of development, because as the adage goes, we “learn the hard way” – from experience. To acknowledge danger, we must first put our hand in the fire and get burned. By attempting to avert the harsh reality of failure, parents are effectively denying a lesson in self defence and destroying their children’s ability to cope with the adversities of life, leading to the endemic depression among Generation Y we are presently seeing.
Taken collectively, the confluence of a confused upbringing and equally confused society ends up sowing the seeds for a generation that is disturbingly material, insensitive, shallow, self-serving, bent on instant gratification and deluded as to its own maturity. Flow on effects further down the track are predictably ominous. These children grow up with skewed values, a lack of wisdom and unrealistic expectations, especially in relationships.
Magical Thinking & Unrealistic Expectations
This brings us directly to the next issue; idealism in all it’s guises. The media and prevailing conditions of society itself have conjured a massive skewness in the general perception of reality. A point I have driven to no end is that humanity in general is quite simply, misguided. We as a people are highly susceptible to idealism, or what I like to term ‘magical thinking’ – a phenomena where the individual believes he/she is different from everyone else (or perhaps ‘special) and that there is some mysterious force that is looking out for them.
I am guilty of purveying such idealism to the extent I often say things like “it’ll work out” to people going through rough patches. But the power of the mind is such that if a person believes strongly enough that ‘things will work out’, it sets in motion subconscious shifts in the individual’s attitude and approach to whatever problem, which affects a higher probability on a positive outcome – hence promoting a self-fulfilling prophecy, which is my justification. (Incidentally, this is precisely the reason placebos have medical efficacy for a great deal of illnesses despite them containing no active ingredients.)
Magical thinking extends across various aspects of the individual’s life and is oft likened to seeing the world through the proverbial rose-coloured glasses. It fluxes perceptions of the self and environment, and it especially warps perspective toward relationships: something I have sunken many hundreds of hours into, though my attempts at unwinding said idealism have proven futile to date.
What many fail to realise is that relationships are not fairytales. Assuming you and your partner will magically live happily ever after is equally as preposterous as my telling you that a Pterodactyl just did a fly-by past my office window. A warning I try to instill is never to go into a relationship envisaging an image of a Cinderella/Prince Charming (or any other Disney romance for that matter) outcome. Though it has strong merits, commonsense is chronically a lost cause when you try and get people to apply it to love.
The issue is not so much the envisaging of a fairytale, but the expectations placed when we expect a relationship to be perfect: tolerance for faults declines sharply and the fundamental attribution error runs rampant whenever something goes wrong (funny how it is always their fault.) Magical thinking necessarily creates unrealistic expectations and I see young people time and again throwing themselves heart and soul into relationships because they think they’ve found their ‘soul-mate.’ Then, as the initial hallucinogenic intensity begins to fade and reality starts to set in (which may take months or years), the lovestruck individual’s expectations get shattered at some point, and they realise they’ve made a terrible mistake and wasted considerable time an energy on that jerk/bitch. The stronger ones will tend to bite the bullet, acknowledge the mistake and move on, whilst the weaker ones will consign themselves to a state of denial and convince themselves that if they persevere, the relationship will come good. In truth, no one admits to having unrealistic expectations, yet the vast majority do.
When a relationship starts off with that spark, these expectations are activated and the initial intensity (which is most always unsustainable) becomes a yardstick. As soon as the natural dip below that yardstick occurs, doubt takes hold and a downward spiral commences. An ignored point of primal importance to a healthy relationship is having realistic expectations of one another – it is not optional. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard dreamy descriptions of a new partner or recently broken up people saying of their new pursuit: “this time it’s different.” It almost never is.
Idealism such as that described above is becoming more prominent wherever you look and the insipid, magically-inspired attitudes that we are special and that things take care of themselves continue to gain traction. The world will face major problems if its stewards continue to drift out of touch with and willingly separate themselves from reality.
P. X. Waterstone